By Kenric Ward | Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau
RICHMOND, Va. — A two-pronged redevelopment plan by Mayor Dwight Jones could turn into a costly double play for city taxpayers.
Richmond’s corporate elites are backing Jones’ proposal to build a downtown baseball stadium for the minor league Flying Squirrels and raze the team’s northside Diamond to make way for new development.
City residents, including a majority of the City Council, remain skeptical. Some brand it a giveaway to private developers. Others call it a cultural disaster.
Downtown’s Shockoe Bottom district, fronting the James River, housed one of antebellum America’s largest slave markets. Historians and Richmond’s large African-American community say building a baseball stadium there is tantamount to bringing a carnival to a cemetery.
Jones, himself an African-American, says his plan would spur commercial activity, including a much-needed grocery store, for the area.
The cost-benefit to taxpayers is difficult to calculate.
“The mayor is looking at $125 million in private development in Shockoe,” said Jeremy Lazarus, a reporter with the Richmond Free Press, the city’s leading black-owned newspaper.
Civic activist Paul Goldman alleges there will be $700 million in no-bid contracts, with $300 million guaranteed to political connected cronies — all on an $80 million project.
John Bates, general counsel of Venture Richmond, a key booster of the Shockoe Bottom plan, calls Goldman’s assertions “patently false.”
But Bates acknowledges the Jones administration “has done itself no favors by taking so long to complete the complex transaction.”
Indeed, the plan’s multiple moving parts make it difficult to determine who will pay for what, and how much.
If Jones’ $80 million public financing package is approved, taxpayers could be on the hook for $167 million in interest charges over 30 years. The mayor is betting the city will cover its costs by collecting more revenue from new businesses.
Gridlock and higher prices
As in other cities, the Richmond plan envisions a waterfront stadium, replete with luxury boxes and state-of-the-game amenities.
The San Francisco Giants’ AA affiliate will pay for the privilege. Currently paying just $250,000 in annual rent to the city for use of 12,000-seat stadium on the Boulevard, the team’s tab would rise to $1.3 million for a 7,000-seat facility at Shockoe Bottom.
The higher costs will almost certainly mean higher ticket prices. Even at half the capacity, the new stadium guarantees more traffic congestion in an already-cramped corridor that has little public transportation.
“Everyone envisions gridlock,” Lazarus said.
Lou DiBella, the Flying Squirrels’ president and managing partner, is open to the cross-town move, but he adds, “We didn’t make the selection of the Bottom — the city did.”
Lazarus said Jones is not being pressured by the team. The current stadium is functional, and could be upgraded at a fraction of the cost of the mayor’s plan.
Jones wants the city to spend $20 million more to clear the Boulevard site and attract new business to the area. Lazarus estimates some $2 billion in new private business would be needed to recover those costs through new tax revenues.
“If you want to hit a home run, you need lots of growth,” he said.
Bruce Jaggard, a board member of the Richmond Tea Party, agrees with Shockoe skeptics in the black community.
“I don’t understand moving the ballpark,” said Jaggard, who has attended dozens of games at the Diamond. A professional soccer field and a 2-year-old Washington Redskins training facility stand nearby.
“This is nothing more than someone making a lot of money — developers, that is,” Jaggard said.
Developers David and Brian White and their partner, Louis Salomonsky, stand “to gain the most from a downtown ballpark, with their vast holdings in Shockoe Bottom,” according to Style Weekly.
“The booster groups that represent those interests — Venture Richmond and the Greater Richmond Chamber — poured thousands of dollars into a pro-stadium PR campaign that included paid canvassers,” the newspaper reported.
The majority of the City Council continues to balk. Without council support, the mayor cannot move forward. Without a super-majority of the nine-member council, the public-finance window slams shut.
In addition to the $56 million Richmond would spend on the new Shockoe stadium, Jones earmarks $24 million for flood mitigation in the Bottom’s hallowed grounds. Some say those figures won’t hold up.
“The proposal (still) has far more questions than answers, site control is still in doubt and is already over budget. We are talking about $80 million of public debt (while) we have schools, roads and other issues which require our local government’s attention,” councilmen Charles Samuels and Jon Baliles said in a statement.
Councilwoman Reva Trammell, another skeptic, has called for a voter referendum.
The council returns from its summer hiatus Monday to resume the long-running baseball debate.
Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist at Smith College and leading researcher on the impact of municipal stadiums, is cautious.
“Most of the research would suggest that the benefit (of a new stadium) would come not in financial terms, but in the psycho-social terms — that it would be a form of cultural enrichment for the community,” he told Style Weekly.
But minority leaders say a Shockoe stadium is culturally insensitive, and Zimbalist said the economics are anyone’s guess.
“I wouldn’t want to put a number on it,” he said.
A study of the Milwaukee Brewers’ city-built stadium shows residents are still paying higher taxes for the project more than a decade after it opened.
“It’s like doubling up in gambling to get your money back. At some point, you have to say stop,” concluded Stefan Szymanski, a sports economist at the University of Michigan.
Kenric Ward is a national reporter for Watchdog.org and chief of the Virginia Bureau. Contact him at (571) 319-9824. @Kenricward